Redefining Disciplines

February 17, 2005

One of the primary disconnects between liberal and conservative observers of academia revolves around the issue of the astounding difference between the number of liberal and conservative faculty members. After recent studies, it is now beyond debate that, at best, only one out of 10 humanities professors is Republican. Conservatives look at these numbers and say, “Viewpoint discrimination!” Many liberals respond—especially liberals in academia—and say, as Roger Bowen of the AAUP did in Monday’s AEI Symposium:

I’ve been a department chair, I’ve been a college president. I’ve conducted more searches than I can begin to describe, and I can tell you I have never asked a candidate what his or her party identification is, and I don’t know of a search committee in the country that would do that.

I have a lot of respect for Roger, and I have no doubt that he is actually recounting his experience. His later comments, however, were extremely revealing:

Anthropologists, which apparently according to the study, Democrats far outnumber Republicans. What do they do? Anthropologists, the discipline itself is focused on questioning religious and cultural myth, particularly myth that celebrates national, cultural or racial superiorities. That in many classrooms will be a shocker for a lot of students.

Sociologists tend to inquire on the origins of inequality as a source of alienation. New concepts to many college students that will seem, I imagine, given illustrations using the American example, rather shocking.

Political scientists, they focus on questions of legitimacy….

Historians, they look at progress frequently in terms of overcoming inequalities of the past, sometimes inequality is endorsed, even embraced by conservatives.

In other words, the disciplines themselves are redefined so that, for example, someone who may defend, study, or explain national or cultural superiorities isn’t exactly studying “anthropology” and a person who dedicates himself to the tactical and strategic nuances of “island hopping” during World War II isn’t exactly a “historian.” Once a discipline is redefined, it isn’t “viewpoint discrimination” to exclude such people from a faculty any more than it would be to exclude a chemist from the math department or a music teacher from the accounting department. The “viewpoint discrimination” (if that is even the precise term) occurs at the point of definition, not at the point of execution.